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Research reveals UK construction's reliance on foreign labour

22 Jun 17 The full extent of the UK’s dependency on immigrant construction labour is laid out in new research commissioned by the Construction Industry Training Board.

The research shatters the myth that foreign workers are low paid and low skilled. They are wanted and needed not because they are cheap but because they are available. At least, for now.

The large-scale, GB-wide research, by CITB, IFF Research and the Institute of Employment Research at Warwick University, is the first to bring together the views of construction firms, employment agencies and migrant workers. IFF Research interviewed 248 migrant workers, 401 construction employers and 50 recruitment agencies across Great Britain to provide a detailed and up-to-date picture of the role migrant workers play in the construction industry.

Key findings include:

  • 1 in 3 GB construction firms employ migrant workers, citing skills and availability as top reasons
  • half of London construction firms heavily reliant on migrant workers
  • 2 in 5 employment agencies expect staff shortages due to Brexit
  • migrant workers give flexibility but just 1% of firms specifically look to recruit them
  • half of firms with migrant labour expect impact from potential migrant caps
  • 75% of migrant workers still expect to be in UK construction in a year’s time
  • 54% expect to stay in the UK until they retire.

More than a third of employers who employ staff from outside the UK say they do so because there are not enough skilled applicants from the UK, rather than for cheaper labour. The issue is magnified in London where one in two employers say they are ‘very dependent’ on migrant workers, compared to around one in six in Yorkshire and the Humber.

The study dispelled some common misconceptions around migrant pay, skills levels and occupations. It showed that only 1% of employers say that migrants are cheaper and that the majority of non-UK construction workers are skilled, with over two-thirds holding a construction-related qualification. Two-thirds of employment agencies reported that migrant workers have similar skills to their UK counterparts.

Professor Anne Green, who carried out the research at Warwick University’s Institute of Employment Research, says: "The UK construction sector relies on migrant labour alongside UK workers to meet demand. This is especially the case in London. Migrant labour plays a key role in offering flexibility for the sector to respond in a timely fashion to project requirements. This means that the future immigration policy matters, as does training of UK workers."

The research also showed that while the largest number of migrant workers (22%) are general labourers (22%), there is a wide spread across many skilled areas such as architects (15%), carpenters/joiners (13%), plasterers (13%), bricklayers (11%), and directors/managers/supervisors (9%). A similar spread of occupations was reported by non-UK workers themselves.

The workforce is still mainly British, however, with only 1 in 8 construction workers born outside the UK. One in 15, or 140,000 overall, come from other European Union (EU) countries. The majority come from Poland (39% of the 140,000) and Romania (26%) and is largely London-based.

The research found that three-quarters of migrant workers surveyed expect to be working in the UK in 12 months’ time, with only 1 in 20 expecting to move abroad, and over half expecting to work in the UK until retirement.

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Recruitment agencies reported that EU nationals are more commonly placed than non-EU migrant workers and two in five agencies are expecting staff shortages due to Brexit. One quarter of employers reported at least one impact of Brexit on their company to date, with the most common being increased costs (12%), followed by project delays due to uncertainty and a lack of client investment.

The agencies interviewed placed an average of 18 individuals per week into construction and reported that on average 30% of these individuals came from the EU and 5% were from outside the EU.

London-based construction firms were more likely to report impacts because of Brexit including a lack of client investment (23%), project delays (19%) and staff shortages (13%).

CITB director of policy Steve Radley said: “Our detailed look at migration labour in construction illustrates how it gives employers the flexibility to respond rapidly to a range of skill needs. It shows that the construction workforce is still largely home-grown but migrant workers play a critical role, particularly in major projects and in London. 

“While most firms are not reporting an impact from Brexit, those who employ migrants are concerned about the future availability of EU workers.  But with over three quarters of construction workers expecting to stay in the next 12 months, we have breathing space to adapt to any changes in migration policy.  While construction employers work with government on its future approach, we will support them to find new and better ways to attract, train and retain the workforce they need.” 

Looking ahead, to life post Brexit, almost four-fifths of employers expect no impact from potential restrictions on the number of migrant workers, although this decreases to half of those with any non-UK workers.

Employers are particularly concerned about retaining their existing non-UK workforce. Agencies are more concerned about future access to non-UK workers than employers, possibly due to their broader view of the labour market. Two-fifths of agencies are expecting staff shortages.

The government has confirmed plans to bring new immigration legislation before parliament in the coming months but has yet to reveal any details.

However, Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, said on BBC television last weekend: "Just as the British people understand the benefits of trade – so, too, they understand how important it is to business to be able to access global talent and to move individuals around their organisations. So, while we seek to manage migration, we do not seek to shut it down."

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